523 U.S. 340 (1998), 96-1768, Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc.

Docket Nº:No. 96-1768
Citation:523 U.S. 340, 118 S.Ct. 1279, 140 L.Ed.2d 438
Party Name:FELTNER v. COLUMBIA PICTURES TELEVISION, INC.
Case Date:March 31, 1998
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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523 U.S. 340 (1998)

118 S.Ct. 1279, 140 L.Ed.2d 438

FELTNER

v.

COLUMBIA PICTURES TELEVISION, INC.

No. 96-1768

United States Supreme Court

March 31, 1998

Argued January 21, 1998

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent Columbia Pictures Television, Inc., terminated agreements licensing several television series to three television stations owned by petitioner Feltner after the stations' royalty payments became delinquent. When the stations continued to broadcast the programs, Columbia sued Feltner and others for, inter alia, copyright infringement. Columbia won partial summary judgment as to liability on its copyright infringement claims and then exercised the option afforded by § 504(c) of the Copyright Act of 1976 (Act) to recover statutory damages in lieu of actual damages. The District Court denied Feltner's request for a jury trial, and awarded Columbia statutory damages following a bench trial. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that neither § 504(c) nor the Seventh Amendment provides a right to a jury trial on statutory damages.

Held:

1. There is no statutory right to a jury trial when a copyright owner elects to recover statutory damages. Section 504(c) makes no mention of a right to a jury trial or to juries at all, providing instead that damages should be assessed in an amount "the court deems just," and that in the event that "the court finds" an infringement that is willful or innocent, "the court in its discretion" may increase or decrease the statutory damages. The word "court" in this context appears to mean judge, not jury. Other remedies provisions in the Act use the term "court" in contexts generally thought to confer authority on a judge, and the Act does not use the term "court" when addressing awards of actual damages and profits, see § 504(b), which generally are thought to constitute legal relief, Dairy Queen, Inc. v. Wood, 369 U.S. 469, 477. Feltner's reliance on Lorillard v. Pons, 434 U.S. 575, 585, for a contrary interpretation is misplaced. There being no statutory right to a jury trial on statutory damages, the constitutional question must be addressed. See Tull v. United States, 481 U.S. 412, 417. Pp. 345-347.

2. The Seventh Amendment provides a right to a jury trial on all issues pertinent to an award of statutory damages under § 504(c), including the amount itself. Pp. 347-355.

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(a) The Seventh Amendment applies to both common-law causes of action and to statutory actions more analogous to cases tried in 18th-century courts of law than to suits customarily tried in courts of equity or admiralty. Granfinanciera, S. A. v. Nordberg, 492 U.S. 33, 42. To determine the proper analogue, this Court examines both the nature of the statutory action and the remedy sought. See ibid. Pp. 347-348.

(b) There are close 18th-century analogues to § 504(c) statutory damages actions. Before the adoption of the Seventh Amendment, the common law and statutes in England and this country granted copyright owners causes of action for infringement. More importantly, copyright suits for monetary damages were tried in courts of law, and thus before juries. There is no evidence that the first federal copyright law, the Copyright Act of 1790, changed this practice; and damages actions under the Copyright Act of 1831 were consistently tried before juries. The Court is unpersuaded by Columbia's contention that, despite this undisputed historical evidence, statutory damages are clearly equitable in nature. Pp. 348-353.

(c) The right to a jury trial includes the right to have a jury determine the amount of statutory damages, if any, awarded to the copyright owner. There is overwhelming evidence that the consistent common-law practice was for juries to award damages. More specifically, this was the consistent practice in copyright cases. Tull v. United States, supra —in which this Court determined that, although the Seventh Amendment grants a right to a jury trial on liability for civil penalties under the Clean Water Act, Congress could constitutionally authorize trial judges to assess the amount of the civil penalties—is inapposite to this case. In Tull, there was no evidence that juries historically had determined the amount of civil penalties to be paid to the Government, and the awarding of such penalties could be viewed as analogous to sentencing in a criminal proceeding. Here there is no similar analogy, and there is clear and direct historical evidence that juries, both as a general matter and in copyright cases, set the amount of damages awarded to a successful plaintiff. Pp. 353-355.

106 F.3d 284, reversed and remanded.

Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Stevens, O'Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 355.

John G. Roberts, Jr., argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were David G. Leitch and Jonathan S. Franklin.

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Henry J. Tashman argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Gregory J. Kopta. [*]

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 504(c) of the Copyright Act of 1976 permits a copyright owner "to recover, instead of actual damages and profits, an award of statutory damages . . .,in a sum of not less than $500 or more than $20,000 as the court considers just." 90 Stat. 2585, as amended, 17 U.S.C. § 504(c)(1). In this case, we consider whether § 504(c) or the Seventh Amendment grants a right to a jury trial when a copyright owner elects to recover statutory damages. We hold that although the statute is silent on the point, the Seventh Amendment provides a right to a jury trial, which includes a right to a jury determination of the amount of statutory damages. We therefore reverse.

I

Petitioner C. Elvin Feltner owns Krypton International Corporation, which in 1990 acquired three television stations in the southeastern United States. Respondent Columbia Pictures Television, Inc., had licensed several television series to these stations, including "Who's the Boss," "Silver Spoons," "Hart to Hart," and "T. J. Hooker." After the stations became delinquent in making their royalty payments to Columbia, Krypton and Columbia entered into negotiations to restructure the stations' debt. These discussions were unavailing, and Columbia terminated the stations' license

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agreements in October 1991. Despite Columbia's termination, the stations continued broadcasting the programs.

Columbia sued Feltner, Krypton, the stations, various Krypton subsidiaries, and certain Krypton officers in Federal District Court alleging, inter alia, copyright infringement arising from the stations' unauthorized broadcasting of the programs. Columbia sought various forms of relief under the Copyright Act of 1976 (Copyright Act), 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq., including a permanent injunction, § 502; impoundment of all copies of the programs, § 503; actual damages or, in the alternative, statutory damages, § 504; and costs and attorney's fees, § 505. On Columbia's motion, the District Court entered partial summary judgment as to liability for Columbia on its copyright infringement claims.[1]

Columbia exercised the option afforded by § 504(c) of the Copyright Act to recover "Statutory Damages" in lieu of actual damages. In relevant part, § 504(c) provides:

"Statutory Damages—

"(1) Except as provided by clause (2) of this subsection, the copyright owner may elect, at any time before final judgment is rendered, to recover, instead of actual damages and profits, an award of statutory damages for all infringements involved in the action, with respect to any one work, . . . in a sum of not less than $500 or more than $20,000 as the court considers just . . . .

"(2) In a case where the copyright owner sustains the burden of proving, and the court finds, that infringement was committed willfully, the court in its discretion may increase the award of statutory damages to a sum of not more than $100,000. In a case where the infringer sustains the burden of proving, and the court finds, that such infringer was not aware and had no reason to believe that his or her acts constituted an infringement of

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copyright, the court [in] its discretion may reduce the award of statutory damages to a sum of not less than $200. . . ." 17 U.S.C. § 504(c).

The District Court denied Feltner's request for a jury trial on statutory damages, ruling instead that such issues would be determined at a bench trial. After two days of trial, the trial judge held that each episode of each series constituted a separate work and that the airing of the same episode by different stations controlled by Feltner constituted separate violations; accordingly, the trial judge determined that there had been a total of 440 acts of infringement. The trial judge further found that Feltner's infringement was willful and fixed statutory damages at $20,000 per act of infringement. Applying that amount to the number of acts of infringement, the trial judge determined that Columbia was entitled to $8,800,000 in statutory damages, plus costs and attorney's fees.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed in all relevant respects. Columbia Pictures Television v. Krypton Broadcasting of Birmingham, Inc., 106 F.3d 284 (1997).[2] Most importantly for present purposes, the court rejected Feltner's argument that he was entitled to have a jury determine statutory damages. Relying on Sid & Marty Krofft Television Productions, Inc. v. McDonald's Corp., 562 F.2d 1157 (CA9 1977)which held that § 25(b) of the Copyright...

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